The access-repair-restore model for the role of chromatin in DNA repair infers that chromatin is a mere obstacle to DNA repair. However, here we show that blocking chromatin assembly, via knockdown of the histone chaperones ASF1 or CAF-1 or a mutation that prevents ASF1A binding to histones, hinders Rad51 loading onto ssDNA during homologous recombination. This is a consequence of reduced recruitment of the Rad51 loader MMS22L-TONSL to ssDNA, resulting in persistent RPA foci, extensive DNA end resection, persistent activation of the ATR-Chk1 pathway, and cell cycle arrest. In agreement, histones occupy ssDNA during DNA repair in yeast. We also uncovered DNA-PKcs-dependent DNA damage-induced ASF1A phosphorylation, which enhances chromatin assembly, promoting MMS22L-TONSL recruitment and, hence, Rad51 loading. We propose that transient assembly of newly synthesized histones onto ssDNA serves to recruit MMS22L-TONSL to efficiently form the Rad51 nucleofilament for strand invasion, suggesting an active role of chromatin assembly in homologous recombination. Huang et al. show that the ASF1 and CAF-1 histone chaperones play active roles in DNA double-strand break repair by promoting the recruitment of MMS22L/TONSL to ssDNA to load Rad51 during homologous recombination in human cells. Furthermore, they show that histones occupy ssDNA during homologous recombination in yeast.